By Elazar Abrahams
For the hosting country of Eurovision, the excitement extends far beyond the three nights of TV broadcasts. In sunny Tel Aviv, locals prepared weeks in advance for thousands of tourists to descend upon their city, culminating in this week’s celebrations.
As one of the most watched live television events of the year, the Eurovision Song Contest features 42 countries from all across Europe (and Australia!). The week-long event is one that lends itself to huge displays of patriotism from the competing countries. Tradition has the winning country host the next year, so when Israel found itself victorious with Netta Barzilai’s ‘Toy’ last go around, the gears of a wild week in May 2019 were set in motion.
The highlight of city life each year is the Eurovision Village (think NYC pop-up on steroids). On Thursday night, I headed to the village complex in Charles Clore Park, just a stone’s throw away from the Expo Tel Aviv venue, where the competition was unfolding. Situated on the coast of the Mediterranean, the breezy vibes gave the public a great spot to watch the performances without shelling out hundreds of shekel for tickets.
I pushed my way through the crowd that was equal parts parents with kids out too late and rowdy college students to get to the packed food court. With 85 trucks and stands lined up to each other, there were plenty of culinary options. A big hit was the highly Instagramable sushi donut, which had a noticeably longer line than the other vendors. I met a French couple wearing their country’s flag devouring shawarma from a small vendor on the side. “We don’t get this back home!” they explained.
One area caught my eye right away. Right near the shore, a 20-foot statue of Netta had been erected, made up of toys. (Get it?) A nearby display featured a photo booth of past iconic Israeli Eurovision moments with the country’s previous winners: A-Ba-Ni-Bi in 1978, Hallelujah in 1979, and Diva in 1998.
As the sun set over the horizon, the village lit up, and the party atmosphere took over. The sprawling lawn became a makeshift dance floor as the DJ mixed from the stage. Later in the night, the Swedish Eurovision band from this year played covers of songs from another group that got their start at Eurovision in the 1970s: ABBA.
The song entries this year are a mixed bag, as always. Poland’s has a wacky punk feel. France’s bop is sung by a French YouTuber. Cyprus’ reminded viewers of a cheap Madonna imitation, which may not have been the smartest choice, given that the Queen of Pop herself will be showing up at Saturday’s final round. Israel’s is woefully awful for a defending champ. But Iceland takes the cake for most mindboggling entry this year. I’m not sure how to describe it – kinky? See for yourself:
Sometimes, a great performance can score a mediocre song much-needed points. Case in point, the Czech Republic’s turn from Tuesday, where their generic pop tune was elevated by creative camera work to secure a spot in Saturday’s final round:
Of course, corporate branding is in full force around Israel. From limited edition Coke cans emblazoned with popular Israeli slang, to kiosks in malls selling Eurovision swag, and tie-in water bottles that caused quite a kashrut-controversy.
Speaking of controversy, the finals will take place on Shabbat, drawing the ire of the religious population. While Tel Aviv usually halts all public transportation on Saturdays, this week special shuttles to and from the concert hall will be running during the holy day. Israeli superstar Omer Adam is publically skipping Eurovision because of this, and viral sensation Shalva Band (a music group comprised of young adults with special needs) was unable to perform at the finals, instead having their slot rescheduled to earlier in the week.
Like all Israel related events, the threat of a BDS boycott loomed over the festivities. However, the movement was largely unsuccessful, with no countries refusing to participate. In fact, this year’s village is being reported as the largest ever, with tens of thousands of people visiting every night.
As for our neighbors next door, thankfully the terrorist rocket fire of just last week has been halted with a ceasefire. That didn’t stop Hamas from hacking the semi-finals webcast on Tuesday night, airing animated images of explosions in Tel Aviv. In another country, this scare would derail a lot, but in Israel, everyone soldiered on unbothered.